On Thursday, December 23, 2004, P. J. Harston, editor-in-chief of Toronto commuter daily newspaper 24 Hours, was in his office late. Most other staffers had gone home for the holidays. In walked the pre-production foreman, with the front page of the paper in his hands.
“They pulled your paper off the press,” says the foreman. “Which one?” asks Harston. 24 Hours was printing two editions that day, one for December 24 and a special year-in-review edition for the following Monday, December 27.
“The 27th,” responds the foreman.
“We sent that off about five hours ago,” says Harston, wondering what happened. Worries run through his mind. Maybe there’s a huge problem. Maybe we got the date wrong or something.
“Janet Jackson’s boob is not covered!” says the foreman. Indeed, it isn’t. On the cover is a photo of the 2004 SuperBowl’s most memorable moment: Jackson’s exposed bosom. Pop star Justin Timberlake had exposed it by ripping her top off in sync with the final verse of the song, “Rock Your Body”: “I’m gonna have you naked by the end of this song.”
An incredulous look spreads across Harston’s face. “They pulled it off the press for that?” he asks. “Why didn’t they call?”
“Well, if you want they can cover it for you.”
“You’re okay with having her boob on the front page?”
“What are we, 12?” retorts Harston. “It’s been all over TV, everyone has seen it.”
“Everywhere else they cover it up,” counters the foreman.
“I don’t care. It’s just a boob. When you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all, right?”
Harston looks around the conference table as he tells the story to his staff at the first story meeting of 2005. The group sniggers. Of all people, Harston is ideal to be running a freebie newspaper. He was the editor-in-chief at Metro, the city’s other subway paper, until 2003, when Sun Media Corp. snatched him up to start 24 Hours and to steal some of Metro’s readership and market share.
Metro and 24 Hours are relative newcomers to Toronto’s daily newspaper scene, and they’re convinced they have a formula that will capture the picky 18- to 34-year-old audience. The result is a dumbed-down m?lange of bare-bones headline news, full-colour celebrity shots, and lifestyle columns they say are just what the target demographic needs. Unfortunately, readers seem to like this combination, and the papers have circulations to prove it. 24 Hours snags 259,000 readers a day, while Metro boasts a readership of 376,000 papers a day. More than 70 per cent of Metro’s readers in the 18- to 24-year-old range only read Metro, says editor-in-chief Jodi Isenberg.
“Younger people didn’t grow up reading information, but they want to be informed and they want to be informed quickly,” says Isenberg. “They are used to watching television or listening to the radio news to get their information. So these papers are provided as an alternative.”
Bert Archer, city and production editor of eye Weekly, one of Toronto’s two alternative papers, scoffs at the thought. “That’s like saying PBS productions of A Christmas Carol are wonderful because they’re getting young people to come into contact with Charles Dickens.”
Archer admits that he used to think transit tabs were a good idea. “On the subway in London, I could get bits of the big stories – like Johnny Carson died yesterday, where you don’t need to know anything other than Johnny’s dead.”
Now, he says, he’s changed his mind. Because the articles are so short – the longest are 400 words, but most are less than half that – there’s not enough context. “Without any depth, you have a whole tree load of people out half-cocked. It’s much worse to think you know what’s going on – and not – than to be clueless. To be clueless, you at least admit to cluelessness. Then you may be able to be informed by someone or something else.”
Transit tabs – published Monday through Friday, and designed to be read quickly in one sitting – are ideal for commuters, even if the journalism is far from remarkable. They arrived on the Toronto scene in 2000, when Swedish company Metro International SA started to replicate the runaway European success of its subway tab concept in North America. Metro set up its own newspaper here after negotiations for a joint transit-tab venture with Torstar Corp. fell through. The Toronto Star and the Toronto Sun, eager to prevent the Swedish rag from sapping readership, each created transit papers to counteract Metro. The result: three subway papers – Metro, Torstar’s GTA Today and Sun Media Corp.’s FYI Toronto – launched the same week in June 2001. Competition between the three papers was vicious and within months all were bleeding vast sums of money. In 2001, Torstar and Metro International joined forces, figuring it was better to share the profits than make none at all. The two papers merged into Metro Today (later just Metro), and shortly after, Sun Media’s spoiler bid, FYI Toronto, quietly ceased publication. Metro had the market to itself until 24 Hours entered the scene in 2003. The competition heats up again this month, with the arrival of CanWest Global Communications Corp.’s version of the free daily – Dose.
Meanwhile, competition between the two papers isn’t fierce, but it’s there. On the wall of Harston’s office are two large pieces of foolscap paper. The headline of one says “Metro vs. 24 Hours.” The two papers distinguish themselves by the type of news they carry. 24 Hours has more entertainment news, printed on thin magazine-stock paper designed so the ink won’t rub off on readers’ fingers. “We call it a newspaper, but it isn’t really one,” Harston told The Hamilton Spectator in 2003. “What I’m going after is a mix of People andUs in a daily newspaper. We’re not trying to be The New York Times.” That’s why Janet Jackson’s bosom makes the front cover.
Metro, meanwhile, is printed on tabloid-size newsprint and stapled in the middle for easy carrying. Forty to 60 pages in length, it has more bite-size local news and fewer celebrity photos, although it isn’t beyond splashing photos of dogs on the front page and filling the back half with food, music, and television columns.
The headline on the second piece of foolscap paper reads “$-making machine.” Both papers unabashedly chase after females in the 18- to 34-year-old market, although 24 Hours likes to extend its target range a little higher. “24 Hours offers more stories that are relevant to that demographic,” says Harston. “So if it’s a choice between a story on breast cancer or on erectile dysfunction, we’d take the breast cancer story.” Metro also tries to attract women, filling its lifestyle pages with columns about dating, food and reality TV. There is another incentive to target the young female audience – it’s one that advertisers want to attract. “Women are the decision-makers and money-spenders in the household, therefore they appeal to advertisers,” says Harston. Both papers say their editorial to advertising mix ranges from 40/60 to 60/40.
“We’re aware advertising is there, but we don’t let it direct the content,” says Isenberg. “You never want too many – then it looks like a flier.” However, Metro has no problems letting advertisers cover the front page of the paper, like it did when clothing giant H&M bought the front page in preparation for the opening of its flagship store at Toronto’s Eaton Centre, relegating the top headlines to page three.
Archer, however, has a problem with the ads. “The subway papers are ad-delivery systems like a chocolate bar is a sugar-delivery system. They stick a couple of peanuts in there as a way to inject the sugar, but the real point is the sugar,” he says. “It’s the same with the subway newspapers. They have to stick some news content in there to justify its existence.” He continues: “The unfortunate thing is that people do treat them as daily newspapers instead of fliers.”
Some readers don’t mind the mix. Thirty-year-old Amby Sony reads both papers on his way to work, and thinks they’re a great idea. However, not all are thrilled. A 32-year-old office worker at Davisville subway station, who gave her name only as Patty, says the paper gives her something to do on her morning commute, but adds, “I don’t find it particularly stimulating.”